Each year the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show showcases the best of dog breeds and crowns one the Best in Show. It is an honor that is remembered for generations, particularly if a well-known artist paints a portrait of the winner.
Paintings of canines are not new. Wealthy owners have immortalized their favorite dogs for centuries, partly for their love for the animal and partly as a status symbol that both enhances and advertises their standing as a member of the upper classes. “The Middle Ages saw dogs being illustrated in hunting scenes, symbolizing their loyalty, bravery, and affinity between man and dog,” wrote Claire Rhodes in the 2014 article Portrayal of Dogs in Art and History for holiday4dogs.co.uk.
Charles I of England had his namesake Cavalier King Charles Spaniels included in family portraits done by the superlative artist Anthony van Dyke, but it was Queen Victoria who presided over a Golden Age of canine paintings. Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901, commissioned royal portraits of her many dog companions, and her passion helped foster a market that allowed artists to specialize in the niche. Some artists preferred depicting purebred dogs standing, sitting or lounging on the laps of their owners, while others favored showing them in action – hunting, playing, chasing, and just, well, being a dog. Sir Edwin Landseer was arguably the most famous painter of animals, particularly horses and dogs, during the Victorian era.
Contemporary artists who specialize in portraits of dogs succeed by capturing the animal’s individuality as well as its appearance. Many of these artists like sticking with sub-niches of the genre. William Wegman, for example, concentrates on Weimaraners, a large breed that royal families relied on to hunt big game such as boars, bears and deer, but he made his artistic reputation using his own pets as models, and not with commissioned canine portraiture. Jim Killen paints sporting dogs – animals bred to assist hunters – at work in vibrant watercolor. Other canine portraitists, such as Steven Townsend, Ron Burns and Paul Doyle, paint a variety of different breeds.
Would-be collectors of dog portraits enjoy a range of choices for how to enter the field and how to pursue their prizes. Chris Fox, Associate Deputy Director of Americana for William Doyle Galleries, summed them up succinctly following a 2020 Dogs in Art auction. “There are three categories: Sporting, pet, and mixed breed,” he said. “The breed portraits show how breed standards have changed. For instance, an 18th- or early 19th-century Pekinese has a snout that is different than today’s dog. Usually, people collect by breed and quality of the work. Most costly are pictures of sporting dogs such as retrievers, hounds and setters. Next would be Afghan hounds. On the down money scale would be lap dogs – spaniels, terriers, and pugs. Last would be working dogs such as German shepherds and border collies.”
According to dealers and collectors, personality is also essential to the success and appeal of a dog portrait. An oil painting by Percival Leonard Rosseau titled Scent’s Up sold for double its estimate at the auction for $31,250. Rousseau’s ability to capture the personalities of the dogs certainly helped drive the bidding.
While dog portraits can sell well at auction, the emotional aspects of the artistic genre effectively frustrates and discourages those who are determined to see only dollar signs. Well-rendered images of man’s best friend – those that transcend mere accuracy and competence and communicate something deep and profound about the wonder, the joy, and, yes, the absurdity of owning a dog – are precisely the images that resonate with collectors. Exceptional dog portraits are born from love rather than money. They aren’t just fit to earn the title of Best in Show; they earn the title of best at home, too.